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Shelbyville square set national pattern

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Shelbyville's public square is more of a familiar sight than you may realize. According to an architectural historian, the plan for the Bedford County seat was replicated in communities all across the country during the 19th century, and is recognized as the first American square design.
(T-G File Photo by Mitchell Petty) [Order this photo]
There's nothing more American than the courthouse square.

But did you know that the original designs of many across the country can be traced back to Shelbyville?

It's a piece of architectural history that has been mostly overlooked -- the fact the earliest public squares were based on designs brought over by European settlers -- but a great many others constructed later in American history were patterned after ours.

Origin of plans

The design of the American courthouse square was described in detail in an article published in the January 1968 edition of Geographical Review, entitled "The Central Courthouse Square in the American County Seat" by Edward T. Price. A reprint of the article was provided to the T-G by Lynn Hulan.

Price wrote that the form of squares across the country was a "convenient shorthand for the settlement sequences of the 18th and 19th centuries."

Many early squares were based on "the Lancaster plan" -- a block intersected perpendicularly at the middle of each side -- and its use is seen as an index of the movement of Scotch-Irish settlers out of Pennsylvania to the upland South and Midwest.

However, the "Shelbyville plan" -- a block bounded by four streets -- was first established here and then carried in all directions throughout America, taking hold most noticeably in the Midwest.

Price explained that while the Lancaster design had its origins in northern Ireland, Shelbyville's design "seems to have been an American development," with its future distribution suggesting that the new pattern established here began to replace those brought over from the Old World.

Simpler design

Public squares were first constructed as market squares in most early colonial settlements, and while Philadelphia's plan drawn up in 1682 called for a "House for publick Affairs," it originally did not contain a courthouse in its middle.

Around 1780, central courthouse squares began to appear in areas south and west of Pennsylvania, with variations appearing all over the original 13 states.

But Price wrote that the Shelbyville square was a simpler design concept than the Lancaster square, easier to lay out, and is more frequently encountered across America.

When Native American lands in southern Middle Tennessee were handed over in a 1806 cession, the towns of Shelbyville, Fayetteville, Pulaski and Winchester, were established -- all laid out between 1810 and 1812, which "are today as nearly perfect examples of central courthouse squares as can be found," Price explained.

Huntsville, Ala.'s square is probably of the same vintage, and Price suggests that the local officials of the time must have been sharing ideas between communities.

Square copied

Afterward, the plan for Shelbyville's square "quickly became the most frequent county-seat plan in new counties in most states," Price explained, adding that the Lancaster design rarely was used again except in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

The Shelbyville design found its greatest exuberance in Texas and the lower Middle West, Price details, with variations of larger squares, more massive courthouses and larger store fronts being built.

A redrawn map from an 1827 original plat of Shelbyville shows that the streets bounding the square were not uniform in width, but the square was clearly the central focus.

While the fad of using our local design lost its momentum later in American history, county seats were laid out in the Shelbyville pattern at least up to the year 1901.

This map, originally published in a 1968 edition of Geographical Review, shows the spread of the "Shelbyville plan" throughout the American frontier of the 19th century. Many communities based their public square layouts on Shelbyville's design from 1810.
(Image submitted by Lynn Hulan)
Big destination

When pioneer county seats were established, churches, stores, taverns, workshops and homes indiscriminately occupied the lots facing the log courthouse. Informal marketing was always welcomed, and Price explained that farmers sold produce, horse and mules were traded and salesmen set up stands in the area.

Early American squares were the terminus of roads coming in from the county, and were also a parking space for horse-drawn carriages of the time. But then the invention of the automobile increased the traffic flow, and bypass routes frequently separated through traffic from county traffic.

The 1968 article notes that businesses on public squares are nearly entirely in the hands of permanent establishments, and the larger the town, the more specialized the businesses will be.

But Price also wrote 45 years ago that a square "seldom survives as the center of a town that has grown beyond 25,000."

He explained that grocery stores had been leaving crowded squares, seeking convenient neighborhood locations with room for parking, and banks also moved "from their pillared strongholds on the square to more spacious drive-in quarters."

Social center

Price concluded his history of American public squares by describing them as social centers, where people work, do business, or "come merely to visit and loaf."

In days past, the American courthouse was the only meeting place in town, the scene of the county fair or the Fourth of July celebration. But modern traffic congestion led to the migration of business over time, and in some communities, that led to the decay of buildings, even the removal of the courthouse.

That certainly isn't the case in Shelbyville.

Public squares also are described by Price as not a product of a bureaucratic order but "an expression of pioneer pride on the frontier of a burgeoning civilization."

"The square provides more room for socializing and a more attractive setting than a downtown devoted only to business and traffic," Price wrote. "And it belongs to everybody."

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